US Supreme Court ruled that results of a valid, job-related test cannot be thrown out

June 30, 2009 at 8:15 pm Leave a comment


The US Supreme Court recently ruled that white and Latino firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut were discriminated against when the city failed to certify the results of an exam.  The full text of the ruling can be found at:
    http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/08pdf/07-1428.pdf 

The city followed well established guidelines and best practices for test design but became nervous when one racial group was disproportionally impacted. This resulted in a heated public debate and a lawsuit that’s travelled a rocky road all the way to the Supreme Court.

I am not a lawyer and do not wish to discuss the merits of this particular case. Dramatically smarter people have gotten involved and the Supreme Court opinion is well worth a read.

I do believe that here are some lessons that we can learn from this case:

  • Valid and reliable exams assist with promoting a meritocracy.  This is very important when life, limb and livelihoods are on the line. The union’s guidelines and city processes promoted a meritocracy.
  • Job analysis to ensure that the test is aligned with the job is important and was effectively conducted in this case. As the court stated “There is no genuine dispute that the examinations were job-related and consistent with business necessity.”
  • Establishing processes and following them is important. Processes had been established and followed by the city except that when there was a dispute the city broke the process by not certifying the test results.

The city’s failure to certify the results, despite effective job analysis and an effective exam, caused this protracted legal process. Unions often get a bad rep, but in this case–as firefighters have to trust each other when their lives are on the line–they were the ones fighting for a meritocracy and approved the examination processes. Hats off to them for that.

The “fairness” or “bias” of high-stakes tests are common themes when results are challenged/appealed. So validity, reliability and cut scores require meticulous attention. Although this ruling raises the bar for challenges based on racial bias, it does not eliminate the need for employers to be vigilant about test quality. Questionmark’s white paper on defensibility addresses  test reliability, validity and other essentials.  It’s available for download at: www.questionmark.com/whitepapers

I’m happy that the US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of exams and demonstrated their appreciation for best practices in the areas of job analysis, unbiased development, expert review, peer review, and agreeing, documenting and following processes.

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Entry filed under: Assessment, Professional Life, Soapbox, Talent Management. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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